Skip to main content

The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley ****

I have a real problem reviewing a book like this. I’m the sort of person who can listen to a speech by practically any non-extremist politician and think ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ I am quite easily swayed by political argument, and in essence, The Rational Optimist isn’t a science book at all, it is a political polemic that happens to be by a science writer. Even so, it’s interesting enough that I feel it is worth covering here.
The majority of Ridley’s book is pointing out that we really have never had it so good. And it’s a very convincing argument indeed. He points out that those people who look back to pre-industrialization with a fake rosy glow of a time when we lived happy lives, better in tune with nature is just rubbish. The fact is, most people scraped a living and had short (at least on average), nasty lives. Ah, someone is bound to pipe up, that’s because agriculture itself was one technology too many. People were better fed and happier when they were hunter gatherer’s.
Ridley pops this bubble very effectively too. It’s true that hunter gatherers were usually much better fed than subsistence farmers. The problem is that hunter gatherers still suffered from all the untreated illnesses. And they needed a phenomenal amount of space per person. To achieve this, they were in a constant state of war with practically everyone else in sight. Most of them would not make old age even if they survived childhood diseases because of being murdered. (In fact it’s true of all our ‘idyllic’ past – homicide rates were much higher than now.)
We have a grim picture of people being forced into dark satanic slums to feed the industrial machine, but as Ridley also points out, most people moved to the slums because they were better than their living conditions in the country. It was horrible, it was rubbish, but it was better rubbish, and a step on the ladder.
The theme throughout the book is one of rational optimism. He argues than many – most? – thinkers through the ages have been pessimists with disaster always around the corner. For thousands of years, the popular stance has been, ‘Yes, it’s okay now, but soon it will all go wrong.’ Ridley suggests that the reason it doesn’t go wrong is that we invent ourselves out of the problem. The reason we won’t run out of energy or food, for example, is we will find ways around it. And he’s right, despite all the gloom and woe-mongers, on the whole we do.
This is not a Panglossian treatise suggesting we have the best of all possible worlds – Ridley accepts we’ve a long way to go – but simply that we have achieved a much better general standard than our forebears, and there is every chance we will continue to do so. The big driving factor, he suggests, is the interbreeding of ideas, fuelled by trade. As long as you try to do everything yourself, you can never progress very far. Self-sufficiency is a dead end. Try making an iPad out of twigs from your allotment. You need to be able to trade with others, to develop specialists and so on to be able to invent your way out of disasters.
Ridley takes on the big problems of Africa and climate change, not necessarily offering total solutions, but pointing out some of the changes that are needed if we are to address these issues more constructively. He has a media image of being a climate change denier. This isn’t quite fair – he does downplay the impact, but also believes we are much better at coping with slow change – which climate change is – than we are generally given credit for. The final section of the book, which attempts a bit of futurology is very weak in comparison with the rest and doesn’t add a lot to the rest.
Overall, then, the message of the book is encouraging and I’m all in favour of it. At times the way Ridley gets that message across is tedious with statistic after statistic being hurled at us in a barrage, but perhaps he feels he needs to do this, so strong is the underlying ethos that the modern world is terrible, rather than the best we’ve achieved to date.
I confess I very much liked what I read. I can’t give this the full five stars as I don’t see why it is being regarded as a popular science book – but it should be required reading for environmentalists, politicians and professional doom mongers.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…